Friday, May 08, 2009

Are We Hard-Wired for Fairness?

I attended a ‘Hume Workshop’ at St Andrew’s University on Wednesday which was peopled by faculty and post-graduate PhD students. Now, I am not an authority on David Hume, though as a Smithian I am familiar with much of his work because he and Smith were close colleagues.

Aaron Garrett (Boston University) presented on ‘Reasoning about morals, from [Bishop] Butler to Hume’, which I found most informative, knowing even less about Butler, whose dispute on the logical proof of God's existence was fascinating, because Aaron wove the philosophies of each man together with the confidence one expects in a faculty presentation. Ezra Macdonald, a postgraduate philosophy student, responded with a slightly nervous stance, but with well thought-out questions and comments, and which Aaron handled with the right tone of encouragement and agreement.

After lunch, James Harris (St Andrews) presented on ‘Hume’s peculiar definition of justice’, to which Jesse Tomalty, postgraduate, St Andrews, responded in a somewhat ‘rapid-fire’ style, but with firm command of her material (I sat two seats away from her at the large table and missed bits of what were her most interesting comments – because of my aged hearing not her content – as she flew through some passages). Her most telling question to James was what was ‘peculiar’ about Hume’s idea of ‘justice’?

The discussion among the faculty and students after each paper was revealing, at least to me. I did not speak in the open sessions but I did ask a couple of questions and made comments in the breaks to speakers and commentators.

It seemed to me that more attention paid to the biographies of philosophers like Hume (and Butler) would elucidate relevant aspects of what made their ideas in the form they published. In fact, I have noticed a tendency, if not a compulsion, of philosophers to focus entirely on the texts and their ‘meaning’ in relation to the ideas of other philosophers, ancient and contemporary, separate from any obvious relationship to their times and circumstances.

For example, in relating Hume on justice to the supposed moral senses, whether innate, as in Hutcheson, or from social experience, as in Smith, a commentator raised the work of behavioural experimenters that showed early signs of an idea of ‘fairness’ in young children in the cry of ‘that isn’t fair’, and in chimpanzees (which caught my immediate attention), in which the chimanzees behaved as if they disapproved of certain actions as a group. I thought the main error here lies in transposing modern concepts into the past, where the same words could have different meanings, such as the idea of distributive justice, which in the 18th century (and for long before, back to classical times) had to do with those who deserved re-distributions by virtue of their evident success socially, not their needs, and such justice did not equate to welfare redistributions to the poor (deserving or otherwise) from the rich in today's welfare capitalism.

It struck me that David Hume’s own position illustrated aspects of the justice debate. Smith taught his students (many of whom were the sons of well-off landowners, including aristocrats) that civil justice existed to defend the property of the rich from the landless poor (Lectures On Jurisprudence; Wealth Of Nations). Another source of the threat to property came from the rich, eyeing a weaker neighbour’s property with ‘avarice and ambition’, hence substantial civil law on inheritance, and the sale of property, characterises Roman Law. The Primogeniture laws were enshrined in statutes.

David Hume, as a second son, was excluded from inheritance of the estate where his widowed mother, and his sister, were excluded by law too. His elder bother, John Hume, inherited the farming estate of Ninewells, Berwickshire; Hume was compelled to seek his fortune for himself. Now, if there had been a dispute, then the justice system would have decided in favour of the existing law of primogeniture (which Adam Smith considered pernicious for the growth of commercial markets, especially when entails were prevalent. Whether this was ‘fair’ was not an issue – Hume’s writings hint at discomfort with the existing law – so the supposed ‘hard wired’ sense of ‘fairness’ is most doubtful, which is a more modern notion.

Also, what is fair is often a locally determined notion. People queue in Britain; they don’t in Italy. Both have different notions of ‘taking your turn’ fairly. Children learn about ‘fairness’ in their families, and, later, in the ‘great school of self-command’. It is not ‘hard-wired’.

I spent a productive time at the seminar, and St Andrew’s philosophy department is to be congratulated for running these seminars and inviting others to them (and the Royal Society of Edinburgh – of which Adam Smith was a founder member in 1783 - thanked for funding them).

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